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“Pioneers of a new age” welcome digital tools to harvest the benefits of their natural capital

Former Treasury Secretary Ken Henry has called it a “gamechanger” for the future of Australian agriculture. Economists, retailers, banks, and even super funds

“Pioneers of a new age” welcome digital tools to harvest the benefits of their natural capital
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Former Treasury Secretary Ken Henry has called it a “gamechanger” for the future of Australian agriculture. Economists, retailers, banks, and even super funds have posited that it could help our farmers access new markets and investment. But for data solutions guru Danny O’Brien, natural capital accounting (NCA) is just plain common sense.

“You can’t manage what you’re not measuring,” declares Danny, who as a director of NCA specialists Integrated Futures, is developing farm-scale natural capital accounts for a data management system that will help 50 farms across Victoria, NSW and Tasmania measure everything from their finances and farm outputs, to the health of their soils, pastures, water resources, and native vegetation.

With phenomenal advances in digital integration has come the ability to collect, analyse, compare and present data in a myriad of ways, which increasingly appeal to everyone from climate-conscious governments, to banks, investors, retailers – and consumers who want to know precisely what goes into their morning cereal.

The eventual processing and presentation of this data through Sensand’s Blockbase platform will signal an important milestone for the Farm-scale Natural Capital Accounting Project, a pioneering initiative by La Trobe University’s Research Centre for Future Landscapes, in conjunction with the Australian Government’s Smart Farming Partnership Program and nine industry partners. One of those partners is Integrated Futures, which is working with Sensand to ensure data collected by on-farm auditors will match the expectations of the market, and of the farmers themselves.

“We believe that natural capital accounting along with its supporting ag-tech will be the biggest thing since the dot.com boom, attracting incredible interest from consumers, banks, governments, and agricultural supply chains, and the rapid emergence of new approaches and offerings,” says Danny O’Brien. However, he cautions that this proliferation of players doesn’t lead to confusion and then paralysis among the end users – the farmers. “The worst outcome for the planet would be that farmers are overwhelmed by the options and choose to do nothing until it is resolved.”

Integrated Futures has been researching NCA solutions for more than five years, the past three with the NCA Project partners, to ensure the compatibility and interoperability of their data collection and presentation methods – so that farmers will be confident of their value in negotiations with carbon-conscious buyers, regulators, conservationists, and consumers.

A real-time picture

The project is currently compiling reports for each farm, which will be stored on Blockbase – enabling farmers to test out which data is most useful to their operations. “They’ll be interacting with their report on a digital platform, which will also provide real-time access to features like weather, satellite imagery, and water and soil sensors if they have them,” explains Sensand’s digital agriculture manager, Jim Castles.

“The first report will provide farmers with a baseline for comparing how increasing their biodiversity has increased their bottom line, because they’ve become more resilient to droughts or pests or diseases… The benefits will increase in the future as more data is uploaded to the system.”

Ultimately, the reports will form the basis of a ‘natural capital performance report’ for each farm, including greenhouse gas emissions and resource use efficiency, ecological and pasture data collected by Bush Heritage Australia, and biodiversity data gathered by La Trobe University. The data will be stored in ways that enable farmers to update it over time, so they can track the progress of specific management practices and restoration projects. Other parties, including commercial partners, will also be able to see the information if a farmer authorises their access.

The implications are enormous – not only for enabling farmers to improve the productivity and resilience of their land, but for proving to premium retailers and markets that their produce meets certain ecological standards. As climate change increasingly obliges governments to reward regenerative land management, the metrics will also be useful for farmers wanting to access habitat credits and stewardship grants, or for measuring levels of carbon sequestration that can be monetised as carbon or biodiversity credits.

“Farmers will value this system if they can use it to make decisions about management to improve their businesses and demonstrate their sustainability credentials to buyers, banks or insurance companies,” says Jim. “If you have rigorous management tools for dealing with drought, for example, you’ll present less risk to banks and insurers. If you can get ½ a percent off your mortgage, or pay less land tax through a government program, it will be very attractive to farmers in the long run.”

For now, La Trobe’s initiative remains a research project, gathering data from its founding partners and evaluating the most useful ways of presenting it. But already, says Danny O’Brien, the researchers are seeing a step change in attitudes towards regeneration. “All this data is pointing to assets in the landscape that can be enhanced by good management practices,” he says. “Ecosystem assets like remnant vegetation and woodlands, traditionally seen as irrelevant to production, actually deliver vital shade to crops and livestock, harbour beneficial insect and birds… things like this are starting to be considered.”

Collapsing ecosystems

It’s no secret that biodiversity has been steadily eroding across the 58% of Australia that constitutes farmland. With climate change adding to a litany of disappearing habitats, invasive species, droughts, floods and pollutants, the twin needs to restore native vegetation and keep carbon in the ground are finally gaining traction – particularly among younger people who are more alert to the tragedy of our collapsing ecosystems.

For La Trobe’s Natural Values team, the number of native birds on participating farms is a compelling case in point. On farms where native vegetation has fallen below the 30% threshold required to maintain ecological viability, numbers of woodland bird species have been in freefall. But initial surveys on the NCA properties have discovered 224 avian species – including several threatened woodland species known as important pollinators. The researchers also report strong evidence that farms that have retained shelterbelts and trees between pastures demonstrate greater soil stability and water infiltration, and, of course, more organic carbon in the soil.

“One of the challenges we have is that we’re asking for a lot of information that farmers haven’t traditionally kept because they didn’t see the value in it,” says Danny. “But as soon as they begin to see the value, they’ll collect it. In the past, they may have recorded selling 20 cows, but not the live weight or the cattle type. But if, later on, this information becomes a requirement for reporting your greenhouse gas emissions, it’ll make sense to record these extra datapoints.”

Blockbase also answers one of the main challenges that confront tech-savvy farmers – the tendency to have separate software programs managing their operations, accounts, production, biomass, commodity markets, and so on. “A platform that brings all these things together under a single umbrella will be extremely useful for them,” says Danny.

As farmers integrate different technologies into their carbon accounts – drawing real-time data from, for example, river and groundwater monitors, soil moisture sensors, smart collars on livestock – they’ll be able to see a more holistic picture of how their different ecosystems and inputs are impacting their yields. And they’ll be able to determine where specific improvements can be made to address issues such as water conservation, soil fertility and carbon content, drought and flood management, crop pollination, and habitats for native species. “These NCA farms are the pioneers of a new age, who see the value in protecting native vegetation and utilising it in their cropping systems,” says Jim Castles. “Just by preserving small areas of your farm for native vegetation and wildlife, or planting hedgerows, or letting your sheep graze in woodland areas, you’ll be laying the foundations for a vital journey that will provide more free inputs from nature for your core enterprises – and keep more carbon in the ground.”